Teen media has held onto the same character stereotypes for decades. They’ve become easily identifiable, key tropes: the popular girl, the nerd, the jock — the main character. You can identify the main character because she’s not like other girls. Modern audiences roll their eyes at the trope: the Main Character is quirky, relatable, and doesn’t “try too hard” or focus on her looks because caring about looks and fashion is for other girls — girls who aren’t main characters.
But young adult literature (aka “YA”) is a book genre that prides itself on its ability to pave the way for the future. So why is it that, despite all of its progressive ideals, YA still shies away from feminine, confident protagonists?
“If you can’t find these characters, you’re not looking hard enough,” one could argue. Of course, one could name-drop specific titles that feature feminine protagonists. But that wouldn’t discredit the original point. Because this isn’t an issue of femininity being “marginalized”. This isn’t an issue of protagonists not being girly enough. Femininity is only a symptom of a larger question: why is it that YA protagonists tend to consistently represent a very specific kind of female hero, as if girls who do not ascribe to this are better suited as side characters?
This is an issue of a genre that considers itself to be feminist but still struggles to free itself from a cliché that is anything but.
This isn’t because YA shies away from femininity in general. Femininity — in terms of being “girly” aesthetics traditionally associated with women in a Western context — permeates most of YA’s world. After all, YA fantasy is going through a princess/queen phase because, well, who doesn’t want to be a powerful princess/queen?
But if the YA Protagonist is a princess, she usually isn’t a conventional one. She hates her role, she doesn’t enjoy dressing up, she hates socializing, she loathes the balls and the glittering parties, and romance is the last thing on her mind (despite romance being the bulk of the book’s storyline). This, on its own, isn’t unrealistic. Many teen girls can relate to this because many teen girls, while not being princesses, are like this. But many teen girls are not.
One could also (attempt to) make an argument that, “Girls* who enjoy fashion and makeup don’t read YA, and therefore YA readers don’t find feminine characters relatable, and that’s why they’re never protagonists.” But one would only need to look at the popularity of Bookstagram, Book-tok (bookish TikTok) and Book Twitter trends such as “book covers as outfits”, “book covers as makeup looks”, and “book characters as outfits” to know this isn’t true.
(*Girls aren’t the only people creating these looks, as trends like these often attract social media users across the gender spectrum.)
So why is the representation of femininity in YA so skewed?
Despite the fact that most American high schools are phasing out of the traditional “pretty cheerleaders are popular girls and girls who read are nerds who reject femininity” cliques that dominate media, most teen media remains, for the most part, firmly rooted in this dated dichotomy — YA included. They’re tropes that work. But they’re also tropes that have been floating around in media for the past thirty years.
A genre that touts itself on its ability to be progressive is surprisingly narrow-minded in its representation of young, female protagonists. For YA, femininity is not something a protagonist desires. A best friend, sure. A love interest, in a sapphic novel? Also acceptable. But a hero is rarely a girl who wants to be pretty, likes being pretty, or — God forbid — is good at being pretty.
Consequently, the female antagonist is often pulled straight out of an early 2000’s teen sitcom — she is attractive and terrible, vain and popular, socially powerful and (for some reason) beloved. But surely you don’t need me to spell out how damaging it is to use traits like “beautiful” and “feminine” as analogous to “terrible” and “villain” (which is, honestly, is a rhetoric that lands only a stone’s throw away from, “what was she wearing”, “she deserved it”).
This is a rhetoric that seems, ironically, entirely un-feminist.
YA protagonists no longer declare they’re “not like other girls”. Instead, this ideal is woven gently into the text. Though the YA Protagonist no longer speaks the words, she still has a distain for aspiring toward femininity, rarely seeks out a romantic partner or romantic interest (unless that’s the plot, of course). She doesn’t want a boyfriend. She just gets one. Wanting boyfriends is side-character material.
It could be a question of experience. “The sorts of girls who publish books aren’t the sorts of girls who were popular in high school, or are interested in fashion, or preoccupied with romance.” Concepts that are huge generalizations and wrong on almost all counts.
But, let’s assume that this is a fact — YA writers are also not princesses of fantasy kingdoms, or time travelers, or superpowered mutants. Imagination takes their stories beyond their realm of experience — why has imagination not taken many of these novels into a realm with feminine protagonists?
YA often comes from a very unilateral viewpoint. Most of the genre is white — white authors, white editors. The genre is also mostly female. It is no surprise, then, that white feminism is pervasive in these works. White feminism, however, also lacks intersectionality, or the ability to understand that femininity functions differently with non-white women.
Rejection of femininity isn’t always the act of feminist rebellion white women see it as, especially not for Black women. In this way, the white feminism of YA does a disservice to its portrayals of young women of color. And this isn’t even taking into account the experience of authors of color attempting to tell their stories in an industry in which they are outnumbered and oppressed. While YA is making strides with diversity, it still, ultimately, bends to a cisgender, heterosexual, white, able-bodied norm.
Main characters are written to be, in some way, relatable. But the primary question comes down to: relatable to who?
By focusing on characters who are “not like other girls”, YA sends concerning messages: romance is something that happens to you, passively. It is not to be desired or sought after. And femininity is the mark of vanity, of popular mean girls. It rebukes readers for the very thing it serves them. Stories where girls are whisked away to marry princes and become princesses and are gifted powers beyond their imagination only happen to the girls who do not want it. If you want it — which, obviously, you do, because you spent the money on the book to read it — you are not Like Her. Across genres, YA Protagonists say no to the very things that make YA a genre. Why is that?
Feminism gives women the right to choose. Dress how you want. Wear makeup or don’t. Dress up or don’t. Wear colors or wear Black. Bare your skin or cover-up. Regardless of how you choose to express yourself, women have the power to make that choice, and whichever they choose — whatever they choose — does not affect their worth.
Except, in YA, it does.
Because the girls who choose femininity — even if they admit that femininity is, for them, feminist — are not the focus of the story. Despite its “feminism”, YA still leads a largely comfortable, misogynistic, “pick me, I’m not like other girls” life. A trope that should have died, it seems that YA has just stopped voicing the Not Like Other Girls phrase. Now, the books whisper it instead.